Mere mention of the word “fracking” can ignite deep felt passions: It’s the controversial process used to capture oil and gas from shale rock deep underground. To some, fracking presents the economic opportunity of a lifetime. To others, it’s an environmental nightmare. Common ground along this deep chasm is hard to come by. One environmental group in our region aims to change that. Ideastream’s Michelle Kanu reports on the search for a “middle way.”
The fracking revolution sweeping Ohio and the country is one of the most contentious issues in the nation’s debate over energy.
On one side, energy companies, many landowners and states are drooling at the money to be made from extracting natural gas from deep underground where engineers previously thought it wasn’t economically feasible.
And on the other side, anecdotal evidence of water contamination, earthquakes, and poor governmental oversight has many environmentalists and community groups demanding a halt to shale development.
They want more definitive answers to the many questions about the environmental impacts and potential threats to human health.
Some want a permanent halt to fracking, period.
Now, The Western Reserve Land Conservancy steps into this picture with quite a different stance.
Rich Cochran is their CEO.
Cochran: "Whether a person is for or against oil and gas exploration is quickly becoming irrelevant because there's no stopping it, it's already happening. It's going continue to happen."
In 2006, eight local land trusts in northern Ohio came together to form The Western Reserve Land Conservancy.
It’s mission? Protect Ohio’s farmlands, wildlife, and water resources.
So when this group says the shale boom is “here to stay, get used to it” – well, ears on all sides perk up.
Cochran: "When we talked to environmental groups who were adamantly opposed to fracking, we realized that they had not been able to move the needle in the right direction by opposing it.”
Instead of an all-or-nothing stance on gas production from fracking, Cochran proposes compromise and collaboration.
At an industry oriented summit on shale last week, Cochran outlined the land conservancy’s proposal:
Assemble a team of local officials, farmers, energy companies and environmentalists. Work with them to identify areas of land and water that are essential. Then make those areas off-limits to shale development.
Cochran: "What we do well-and very few other conservation organizations do-is strategic conservation planning and strategic acquisition of real property interests. So we're trying to serve that role, and the only way we've been told we can do it is by developing a shared vision because it's happening so fast that you can't preempt the development in the oil field."
Getting to this decision wasn't easy. Cochran says it took two years to convince his group to agree to this approach.
But it turns out, the land conservancy isn’t the only group trying to find some middle ground in the fracking conversation.
In fact, many environmental groups fit along of a spectrum of opinions that range from accepting the drilling to pushing for an outright ban.
Henry Henderson heads up the midwest region for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Henderson says in some states like Ohio, they’re willing to come to the table and talk with drillers about pragmatic solutions to their concerns.
In other states like New York, the NRDC supports the fracking ban.
As Henderson sees it, the main goal is to see that states and the federal government put tighter reins on the oil and gas industry.
Henderson: "Our position is that we need to have science based regulations. We need to have technologically sound practices and to develop the technology to address the risks that are happening."
Another group, the Ohio Environmental Council, agrees with that. But until the scientific data gets clearer, they want a ban.
Jack Shaner is the deputy director.
Shaner: “We’ve called for a moratorium on shale gas development in Ohio, until the United States Environmental Protection Agency completes the report that they’re currently doing, which is due next year, to identify what are the risks to drinking water and ground water, and how can we best control those risks.”
That EPA report isn’t expected till sometime next year. Shaner says he has no objection to what the land conservancy is trying to do in the meantime – restrict drilling in some areas but not in others. He's just not optimistic it would do much good.
Shaner: "I think it is possible to get some concessions. I think it is likely that the industry will stonewall and put their foot down and drag their feet on some things."
A third group we spoke with remains absolute in its opposition to shale development.
McKenna: "We wouldn't be working in conjunction with the land conservancy, and wouldn't be working with the oil and gas industry to develop fracking."
Pat McKenna is with the Northeast Ohio branch of The Sierra Club. They are not about negotiating; they are organizing protests and education campaigns about the toxic threats of fracking.
Nothing less than a nationwide moratorium will suit The Sierra Club. And although more than 200 wells have been drilled in Ohio, McKenna says it’s not too late to put a stop to it.
McKenna: "We don't believe that it's going to go on anyway. We actually believe we can get a moratorium on the industry by demonstrating and proving how unsafe it is."
The Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Rich Cochran says that’s a bull headed approach that doesn’t work for him. He’s going to stay focused on finding stakeholders for what he calls his “big tent.”
Still… Cochran says it’s not a bad thing to have some groups outside that tent--- snapping at the industry’s heels.